Shooting Stock: It's Not Brain Surgery

Posted on 9/29/2009 by Paul Melcher | Printable Version | Comments (5)

Commercial stock photography is all about problem solving. The first is how to make a living shooting commercial stock. One way to do it, is to solve other people's problems.

When image buyers go to a Web site, it is because they have been asked to provide a solution to a very specific problem: They have text, they have a layout, they have a concept and they have a client with a message. The task: fill in the visual space with the perfect image.

Seems easy in theory. If what's needed is a picture of a tool, get a tool. If it is a concept, it is much harder.

A photographer's job, one that shoots stock, is to preempt this problem and solve it. The more common the problem, the more successful the image. Potentially.

How does one figure what problems need to be solved worldwide? In a way, it is not that hard. As humans living in the 21st century, we share common experiences. We seek solutions to a lot of tasks and issues. Our lives, in a sense, are a continuous search to alleviate problems. And unbeknown to us, many are shared by our peers.

So, photographing our own problems, or at least solving them, is productive. Figuring out what the next problem will be is a better way to be a successful stock shooter. The image of the solution, however, should always be tied to the problem.

Once this is understood, that a stock photographer is a problem-solver, a big step has been made. But it is not all. A stock photographer should also know how to create meaning. And for that, we need to dive a little deeper in how the brain functions.

Our eyes, in a way, are very stupid. We receive light, and it bounces into the back of our brains, at the primary visual cortex, which only sees and recognizes basic shapes, like circles, squares, triangle, etc. However, this is not the end of how we interpret a photograph in our brains. It actually goes from there to at least 30 other different places in our brains, some of which we are still figuring out what actually they do.

Some we know:
We will skip quickly over the ventral stream, which is the "what" of our brain that recognizes what an object is and what it does. Sort of the catalog section of our brain. Photographs share this space, in the frontal lob, with words, and how we interpret them. We will also fly quickly over the dorsal stream. That part of the brain creates a map of where the object is. A sort of 3D GPS system that puts the object in perspective to its surrounding.

What is interesting is a third location where the information bounces, and that is called the limbic system. That is deep inside the middle of our brain and very old. Old in the sense that it has been with us throughout our evolution. The limbic system is the part that "feels" those basic emotions, from satisfaction to fear.

Those three parts are what create meaning for a photograph and what every single human being has in common, including your potential client.

That is what stock photographers should go after: create meaning. Images should tickle that part of our brains that recognize, put in perspective and make us feel emotions, because it also makes them valued.

When a creative director or a photo editor is looking for an image, it is not just a problem they are trying to solve, but a meaning they are trying to convey.

If you look at the stock industry, with photo libraries boasting millions upon millions of images, it is easy to see that maybe 90% will never sell. They aren't useless; they just have no meaning to anyone.

Commercial stock photography, in order to strive, has to offer an emotionally meaningful solution.

Copyright © 2009 Paul Melcher. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Sep 29, 2009
    Well written post. Interesting way you dissect the brain to support your subject.

    Jonathan Ross

  • Ann Guilfoyle Posted Sep 29, 2009
    Loved this, and would really welcome some hard examples to support and expand upon the theory. Successful solutions of problems past would be great.

    Best, AnnG

  • Sharon Mcdonnell Posted Sep 30, 2009
    Nicely done article, thanks. For the requests for data I humbly offer a few suggestions here. The newest findings by neurosciences, socialogy, and brain imaging have helped us understand how important emotions are to our actual lives. I found the most direct connections to the questions raised here in the work of Dr. Roger Ulrich and in the book by the Planetree organization. Dr. Ulrich has written on research about important elements of environment, visual imagery and their associations with health outcomes. They produced interesting guidelines for "restorative" images and their use in health care facilities. We are doing some research on visual images +/- messages as part of physiological functioning in different settings. There have been articles in the medical literature including JAMA about the use of pictures (but not very hard science). In some respects the best connection is the research on the effect of for natural light and windows in hospitals. The results was a rule that now requires these for "good" care and makes the basic case. A picture can be a window-- it can be calming or not to someone who is stressed-- it can connect to the idea or "problem" at an emotional or gut level. The image can enhance, detract or be neutral to the mission or main point of a hospital or advertising.

    I would restate the 4th paragraph from the bottom to say "connect to meaning and feeling". We are not so much trying to create the meaning but to connect and channel to that meaning and emotion which already exists for a large number of people.

    Our problem is that people who select art for public places do not think of how they want the people there to feel while there or about the place very often. Too often people dismiss what has been learned by saying "art is subjective" and it is. But, if we hook people up to physiological monitors such as biofeedback one can start to see that a large number of people respond positively or negatively to various images in predictable ways

    The guidelines we have adapted and are researching are available for comment (and improvement) at: go to "health through imagery" tab and documents and images links are described.

    Or try:

    To go directly to documents:

    Sharon McDonnell MD MPH

  • Paul Melcher Posted Sep 30, 2009
    This is great and fascinating input, Sharon. Thanks !!
    when you write : "I would restate the 4th paragraph from the bottom to say “connect to meaning and feeling”. We are not so much trying to create the meaning but to connect and channel to that meaning and emotion which already exists for a large number of people." Does that mean a photograph cannot generate a new Meaning/emotion ?
    Again, thank you for the more scientific approach.

    Paul M

  • Sharon Mcdonnell Posted Oct 2, 2009
    Ah, good question. When I was making my suggestion the same question came to my mind and I think the answer would have to be yes. The process of connecting visual images, smells, sounds with emotion is constant. It is like cultural change in our heads. I decided to go with "Connect to meaning and feeling" because it seemed closer to the mark more of the time. A picture is experienced and that experience is connected and categorized to meeting, ideas, and feelings. Often this process is subconcious. In fact research on this shows that the more you think about a picture and move away from the feeling of it-- then the more likely it is that you will end up with a picture that you don't like as well.

    But, yes sometimes the picture itself becomes the icon. It becomes symbolic (perhaps archetypal) and all things that can connect to that gain a bit of the baggage or charge.
    I think its most fun when a picture creates a link between ideas that may not have been "articulated" or visualized that way before and suddenly the image helps us find the feeling(s).

    Its a great topic and I am glad you started it.

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